Silhouettes are a wonderful way to convey drama, mystery, emotion and mood to the viewers of your photos. Because of its simplicity and vagueness, it is a silhouette’s nature to leave part of the image to viewers’ imagination and interpretation.
There are a lot of very technical descriptions going around on how to take great silhouette shots but this article will expose you to the basic steps of capturing silhouettes.
A Silhouette is defined as an outline that appears darker against a bright or lighted background. In the photography industry, silhouettes are perceived as an artistic part of photography expression that many photographers now employ to further refine their images.
Occasionally, silhouettes can appear as a result from photographic “errors” and “accidents”, when your flash did not work when they are supposed to or when your auto-focus/metering camera has misread a scene/subject. However, when a silhouette is done under controlled environment, it can create really cool and dramatic effects.
A silhouette can be made by photographing a subject placed in front of a bright light. The back-light will shadow everything towards you and produces this effect. A silhouette can also be created by having the right amount of correctly-exposed lighting in the background that forces everything else in the photo to be underexposed.
Silhouette Tips and Techniques
There are several factors which you need to take into account when preparing for a silhouette shot. Before you begin, make sure your back light is strong enough. Insufficient lighting will result in your subject matter being grayish instead of black. Keep in mind that when you have multiple colors of bright lights in the background, the effect will be multiplied as well. Next, make sure to minimize any source of lighting being reflected on the front of the subject matter. Too much unnecessary/stray lights will ruin the effect.
Most experienced silhouette photographers will use a narrow aperture (high f/stop) to capture the whole scene with a higher depth-of-field and to ensure everything is in focus. Once you have mastered the basics, you might want to use the aperture manual mode. It will allow your camera to automatically select the right shutter speed necessary for the shoot. But if you are trying to create silhouettes with a point-and-shoot camera, make sure you compose the image with a background light first – by pointing the camera at the background. If you compose the image by pointing the camera directly at your dark object, the background will be over-exposed and you will not end up with a silhouette.
The following tips will help you capture some dramatic silhouettes for both digital and film photography. It will take a lot of trial-and-error and experience but eventually, you will get it right!
1. Backlit the Subject Matter
The key to create a good silhouette shot is to have the main or strongest light source positioned behind the subject matter. Instead of lighting the front of your subject, you will need to ensure that there are sufficient lighting at the back of the image when shooting silhouettes – a direct opposite to the normal lighting practices in photography. Using a fast shutter speed in low light conditions will also help create the effect. Sunrises and sunsets are the best time of the day to capture silhouettes if you use natural light source.
2. Trick Your Camera’s Automatic Settings
Most digital cameras nowadays are made with an automatic sensor to detect the lighting of your subject matter, thus automatically lighting-up your image when you take them. To get around this problem, try pointing it at a clear and bright section of the sky first. Press the shutter button halfway down and hold it there. The camera will then register and work out the exposure level (at the same time that they focus) of that scene. Quickly focus your camera towards the framed silhouette object again to complete the shot. With most digital cameras, this will result in a silhouetted subject. What you’re actually doing is to trick your camera into thinking that the bright part of the image is the mid tone of it so that anything darker than it will be exposed as a nice dark shadow.
3. Speed Up the Shutter Speed
If your camera happens to allow manual exposure or exposure compensation, you might want to adjust your own settings. To adjust the brightness, check out the shutter speed that was suggested in automatic mode. Speeding up the shutter speed by one or two stops will allow half as much light into the camera, thus resulting in a darker image and vice versa.
4. Use the Right Aperture Setting
To adjust the depth of field, use the aperture to maximize the amount of your image that is in focus. Set a small aperture to increase the depth of field and you’ll have a sharper foreground and background in your shots.
5. Meter the Light off the Background
Whether you are using a manual metering on your camera or a hand-held meter, point it at a clear, bright section of the sun/light source to take the light readings. Set your camera following those meter readings as it will help you deliberately underexpose the subject and create silhouette effects.
6. Shoot from Different Angles
Move around the subject matter or have your subject matter move/pose in different positions to achieve different silhouette shots. Positioning yourself nearer to the subject matter will also allow you to try on different shooting angles and to generate a wider variety of silhouette images. If neither you or your subject can move, zoom in to get the shot.
7. Turn Off your Flash
Remember to the flash turn off, disconnect or disable the camera’s flash setting each time you want to shoot silhouettes. The automatic setting on most cameras nowadays are made to sense potentially underexposed subjects and to fire a flash whenever needed, thus making silhouette shots a mission impossible.
8. Choose a Strong Subject
Most objects can be made into a silhouette object, however some are better than others. Choose an object that will be interesting enough when viewed as a silhouette. Silhouettes does not have colors, textures and tones so it’s important to choose an object with a strong and recognizable shape that will stand out on its own in its two dimensional form.
9. Make Silhouetted Shapes Distinct andUncluttered
If you are trying to capture 2 objects in a silhouette shot, try to keep them separated or it will appear as if the 2 objects are merged together. Also, when you are silhouetting a person, it is always better to shoot side ways at eye’s level. This way, you will get more out of his/her features outlined (nose, mouth, eyes) and are more likely to be recognized. For example, if you are shooting from a high angle, the model’s chins might appear merged into the shoulders.
10. Partial Silhouetting
Besides the common silhouette effect, you might want to try some partial silhouetting whereby some details of your object are maintained. This will make it look slightly more three dimensional and realistic. “Bracketing” your shots will leave you with total and partial silhouette options.
Have fun trying!